Friday, July 27, 2012

Brave Enough to be Different




During a recent explosion of heroic women archers in film, one summer movie has become an instant favorite and a measurable example of progress in popular culture. The numbers indicate audiences around the world were salivating for a strong female lead as Brave's premiere earned an impressive $80.2 million internationally its opening weekend and became Pixar's number one debut.


Besides records, Disney's latest production broke tropes that often landed the animation juggernaut in hot water. Unsatisfied feminists desperately wanted another kind of fairy tale for their daughters. And that's exactly what they got. Noticeably successful and decidedly different, one might say this was merely Merida's destiny.


"Destiny is the one thing we search for, or fight to change."


Feminists have been worried about the effect Disney's princesses were having on young girls for some time now. Even with a new look, Tangled (a loose interpretation of Rapunzel) followed the same tired formula. Reliant on a male lead to push the story forward, Rapunzel played a supporting role in her own movie and the mark (of progress) was missed completely.


In a New York Times piece titled "What's Wrong with Cinderella?" Peggy Orenstein wondered what Disney's many princesses were teaching her three-year-old, who (thanks to the company's aggressive marketing) was quickly becoming obsessed. Orenstein said:
I've spent much of my career writing about experiences that undermine girls’ well-being, warning parents that a preoccupation with body and beauty (encouraged by films, TV, magazines and, yes, toys) is perilous to their daughters’ mental and physical health.
And when it came to Disney's princess-industrial-complex, Orenstein found the "undermining" shoe fit.


Increasingly concerned by her own princess-in-training's royal preoccupations, she fully investigated the phenomenon in her best-selling book Cinderella Ate My Daughter. After revealing the social and economic forces behind the worrisome trendOrenstein argued "Cinderella [and each of her cohorts] is a symbol of the patriarchal oppression of all women, another example of corporate mind control." And she wasn't alone.


Other feminist mothers have explored whether the infamous girl gang was exploiting or empowering their offspring. Back in 2007, Barbara Ehrenreich made a modest proposal for a princess bonfire with parental pitchforks held high. Erenreich said
 Disney likes to think of the Princesses as role models, but what a sorry bunch of wusses they are. Typically, they spend much of their time in captivity or a coma, waking up only when a Prince comes along and kisses them.
And I myself have raked Disney over the feminist coals for their consistent failure to produce anything beyond an animated guru for the cult of true womanhoodBut since the release of the titillating trailers, we all knew Brave would be different. After years of criticism, a red-haired breath of fresh air would change the theater experience forever.


"Curse this dress."

Princess Merida doesn't clean. Or sing. Or (spoiler alert) get married. Her hair is unkempt, her eyes are wild, and her spirit is free. She races through the countryside on horseback, scales mountains, and reaches unthinkable heights. The liberated leading lady expertly shoots arrows at moving targets. She even rips her own dress to increase her range of motion in a defining moment oozing with symbolism. 

Yes, Merida willingly busts her seams, breaks through barriers and defies gender norms. But in the midst of narrating her own story, she explains how painfully aware she is of the double standards controlling her life. 


Her brothers "get away with murder," while she is constantly reprimanded and reminded to be a "lady." Under her mother's watchful eye, the list of what princesses do not do seems never ending. 


While Queen Elinor enforces piety, purity, domesticity and submissiveness with daily lessons, Merida yearns for something else. Dreading her inevitable engagement, the bride-to-be only wants to "chase the wind and touch the sky."  


"I've decided to do what's right and break tradition."


Disney's newest 'it girl' is insatiable. She doesn't need saving and she resolves her own conflicts. Inspired by co-director Brenda Chapman's own daughter, Merida is a rare gem.

This peculiar princess behavior is matched by two other atypical women characters; an ambivalent witch and a understandably flawed matriarch. 

The witch, known as the Crafty Carver, is neither evil nor menacing. With an impressive skill she practices more than witchcraft, she leads an active life away from her cauldron. She's not chasing after Merida's youth and she doesn't mean the princess any harm. Bordering on mentor, she merely teaches her unexpected pupil a valuable lesson. 


And the Queen, initially defined by female essentialism, is allowed to change over time. Elinor's commitment to domestic tasks and marital submission is challenged by her daughter's dreams. Following a hasty wish and a latent consequence, both learn to communicate their own desires-- and compromise.

So often female characters are static, stereotypical and boring, not to mention at each other's throats. But the women of Brave are surprisingly dynamic. And the men aren't so bad either.

While Merida's mother battles traditional femininity and societal pressures to conform, her father is a constant ally in her nontraditional pursuits. He encourages her adventures, takes pride in her outdoor accomplishments and insists, "learning to fight is essential-- princess, or not." 


Rough and tough (with a wooden leg to prove it) this is the most supportive Disney father yet. As King Fergus looks over Merida's suitors, he sees none fit to marry his daughter. He only wants what she wants. 


Yet Queen Elinor tries to convince both parties an arranged marriage is what Merida has been preparing for her entire life. And Merida attempts to alter her future by disrupting the present-- which is rooted too deeply in the past. 


In a story centering on mother-daughter relationships, the tension between young and old feels like the struggle defined in Betty Friedan's The Feminine MystiqueAnd as the characters of Brave examine the legends shaping their lives, they are creating an historical narrative of their very own.


"Legends are lessons. They ring with truth."


While Chapman was inspired by the Grimm Brothers, her story doesn't rely on a pre-existing fairy tale. In fact, it feels more like mythology. Or maybe one of Aesop's fable. And that's the point.


Our overall enjoyment of this movie is ultimately defined by the difference between fairy tales and legends. Fairy tales are an escape, full of impossibilities and told only to entertain. 


Dependent upon dichotomies and stereotypes, a fairy tale romance followed by an extravagant wedding is predictable and anything but progressive. Men are charming and responsible for resolving conflicts-- usually with their swords. Women are beautiful and rewarded for adhering to the cult of true womanhood by ascending the socioeconomic ladder.


But legends have substance. They are as diverse as the people who repeat them. The action revolves around something worth knowing and the story is a creative vehicle to relay information. 


So rather than mislead our children with an archaic blueprint for happiness, Brave tells them to create their own. It teaches them to do what they want, despite social pressures to do what's expected-- and the all important art of negotiation. 

"You only have to be brave enough to see it."


These visual displays are especially important for our little women. Two years ago the American Psychological Association released a very special report on the sexualization of young girls. According to the APA's task force, the constant objectification (at all ages) is causing visible and lasting damage. 


Thanks to television, music, magazines and even toys, girls are learning to be "sexy" before they fully understand sex. Cultural obsessions with beauty, attraction and arousal are overwhelming for those watching while female. Girls experience depression and low self-esteem when bombarded by messages explaining their worth begins and ends with their bodies.  

Pair that with the passive attitude and limited aspirations of a typical princess and you've got a Stepford wife in training.

SPARK was created in response to this eye-opening APA report. The Sexualization Protest: Action, Resistance, Knowledge is a movement "designed to engage girls as part of the solution rather than to protect them from the problem." Forming coalitions to resist being used, hurt or patronized, SPARK is working to eliminate photo-shopping in teen magazines, gender-policing in children's toys, and negative imagery in the media.  


A similar project, "MissRepresentation" is trying to empower women while rejecting media labels that limit them. No stereotype goes unchecked here. The popular documentary by the same name attempted to "break that cycle of mistruths" and reminds us; "You cannot be what you cannot see." 


And that's why it's so importance for strong female characters in seemingly innocuous animated films to delight our daughters. In a recent interview with the Ms. Magazine where she enthusiastically described the film, Chapman said:
We need to give young girls role models with real messages about what they are capable of. There are so many films made by men that seem to put them in boxes, rarely ever giving women characters the freedom to express themselves in a genuine way. Girls and women can be strong in so many ways. Little girls are getting cheated out of seeing and believing that in our current media.
As Elinor and Merida decided together, children should be free to write their own stories and follow their own hearts. And we couldn't agree more.

Brave is still in theaters-- and not to be missed. So whether you're seeing it for the first or the seventh time, let Disney know (with your box office dollars) Merida is our favorite princess yet. Maybe we'll get more just like her.